Cris Niell Named 2012 New Innovator by the National Institutes of Health

EUGENE, Ore. — (Sept. 13, 2012) — Cris Niell, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology and Institute of Neuroscience at the University of Oregon, was announced as a recipient of a 2012 New Innovator Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) at a ceremony on Thursday. The award includes a five-year grant totaling $1.5 million.

Niell, the only Oregon recipient of the award, was singled out as a promising early stage investigator whose highly innovative research has the potential for significant impact. He studies the function and development of neural circuits for visual processing and will use his New Innovator Award funding to study the development of the visual system to understand how neurons establish appropriate circuits that perform specific computations.

“This award emphasizes innovation and creativity, two qualities that Dr. Niell has displayed abundantly in his research,” said Kimberly Andrews Espy, vice president for research and innovation, and dean of the graduate school. “In examining how we make sense of the information in the visual world around us, Dr. Niell is enhancing our fundamental understanding of the processes that undergird development, with the ultimate goal to improve human health and well-being.”

“We are very excited to see where his research leads and grateful for the support of the NIH,” she added.

Established in 2007 and handed out annually by the NIH, the New Innovator Award is intended to support exceptionally creative new investigators who propose highly innovative projects that have the potential for unusually high impact. Part of the NIH’s High Risk High Reward Program, it is intended to support research by investigators who have not yet received a Research Project Grant (R01) or equivalent NIH grant. Niell was named as a New Innovator Award recipient at the Eighth Annual NIH Director’s Pioneer Award Symposium in Bethesda, Md.

“The Common Fund High Risk High Reward program provides opportunities for innovative investigators in any area of health research to take risks when the potential impact in biomedical and behavioral science is high,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.

Niell, who joined the UO as an assistant professor in the UO Department of Biology and Institute of Neuroscience in the fall of 2011, has helped pioneer methods to label synapses in the brain and manipulate individual neurons. In April 2012, he was named one of 15 Searle Scholars. The highly competitive award entitles him to $300,000 in support during the next three years. In 2012, he also received a $50,000 Sloan Research Fellowship, an award given to select early-career scientists and scholars.

Niell initially studied physics but switched to biology because he wanted to learn how the brain works. Starting in October, he will be working out of the new $65 million Robert and Beverly Lewis Building for Integrative Science. 

About the Robert and Beverly Lewis Integrative Science Building

Opening in October 2012, the Robert and Beverly Lewis Integrative Science Building is home to strategic research clusters centered around interdisciplinary and integrative research missions that are not defined by departmental boundaries. Part of the University of Oregon’s Lorry I. Lokey Science Complex, the building brings researchers together from across the spectrum to tackle society's grand challenges, from cellular processes to improving communities.